“Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three”
So began Philip Larkin’s commentary on the Profumo Affair; the sex-and-spying love triangle between showgirl Christine Keeler, Conservative Minister John Profumo and Soviet spy Evgeny Ivanov. Erupting at the height of the Cold War, it was the stuff of a James Bond saga, and all its protagonists once called Murray’s Cabaret Club home.
Related: Bonham’s Auction | The Murray’s Cabaret Club Costume Design Archive
(Runs until June 25)
For night after night, high and low society gathered in this matchbox venue beneath the pavements of Soho’s Beak Street to seduce and be seduced. Prince Philip attended with a bevy of society women, King Hussein of Jordan with a cabal of Arab millionaires, and Sidney Poitier with a group of Hollywood’s finest. Here, Prince Margaret and Tony Armstrong-Jones courted, Mandy Rice-Davies and Peter Rachman cavorted, and Diana Dors snorted.
‘Discovering Soho’s Secret’ uses witness testimony, dazzling costume designs, and unseen photographs to reconstruct the club behind the scandal. From tales of hobnobbing with the Krays to the bugged visitors’ booths, Benjamin Levy shines a light on London’s most luxurious, though exclusive, nightclub.
It was an illusion maintained by an army of skilled seamstresses who ensured that ‘Pops’ Murray’s showgirls were London’s most expensively-costumed. And aside from Keeler, the roster of showgirls was eccentric: Gertrude Lawrence and Kay Kendall began their careers here. The murderer Ruth Ellis once graced its illuminated stage, alongside a host of other tragic peroxide blondes and even the founder of a satanic cult. Andrew Lloyd Webber fictionalised it in his musical Stephen Ward, and Netflix did the same in The Crown. The theme is current: the BBC are dramatising Murray’s and the Profumo Affair in a muchanticipated miniseries later this year.
Today, 16-18 Beak Street is a grubby burger bar, its whitewashed oak walls reflecting the muddy grey of ‘Bombsite Britain’. Post-War, London was gripped by austerity and straightened living, but not in this glittering Aladdin’s Cave; how apt that the event that spelled an end to the black-and-white Fifties and the start of the permissive Swinging Sixties should happen on its doorstep.
Benjamin Levy is a former curatorial assistant in the V&A. He writes about, and now independently curates, exhibitions on theatre and performance. Dita Von Teese contributes the Foreword…
“The art of the tease was taking place nightly among the clientele and staff alike in this intimate jewel box of a club, electric with seduction, secrets and society, high and low. How I wish we had Murray’s now!”Dita Von Teese
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